Brittany Murphy died today at the age of 32. The initial coroner’s report says she died of a heart attack but the police have already requested an autopsy. It is frightening to lose anyone in the 30s to heart disease, but it is more frightening to me when I was just speculating about her health a few days ago.
Britney Murphy is one of many female actresses I highlight in my course on Women, Media, and Body Image. In that course, I show my students before and after photos of female actresses that have gone from a healthy size to unbelievably thin, from “ethnic features” to “white or whiter”, from sexually ambiguous to hyper-heterosexual and/or from androgyny to hyper-feminine. These transitions follow a specific pattern some have masked as the shift from childhood to adulthood in Hollywood. As most women know, however, bodies get larger and generally proportional not smaller and top heavy. More than enough has been written about how adult-female-body hating fatphobia driven myths of the female body permeate and warp Hollywood. And it is this myth that Brittany Murphy, who went from a round faced, dark-haired, white ethnic young girl to an emaciated, blonde, ocassionally duck lipped woman helped perpetuate to her own detriment.
In fact, Brittany Murphy’s transformation has garnered some of the most negative attention of her contemporaries. No other woman rapidly losing weight has been called a “crack whore” in a rap song or “meth addict-chic” by movie reviewers for similar transformations. And yet, Murphy’s often hidden talent and the unspoken understanding that it was better to look like a famine victim than a healthy N. American woman, kept Murphy in film. Despite the criticism that surrounded her, she went from critically acclaimed supporting actress, to inconsistently praised leading one. Murphy herself openly mocked the irony of Hollywood’s expectations of women in one of her better romcom’s, Love and Other Disasters, when her character states that “if this had been a movie, she would be blonde.”
One has to wonder if the level of criticism her rapid weightloss, or rather the vehemence with which some spewed that criticism, has more to do with the roles she played than any real concern for her health. While her career has gone from playing complicated characters in dramas and thrillers to wide-eyed romcoms that have been largely hit or miss at the box office, Murphy has always gravitated toward complexity. In her short life, she has played a young woman dealing with ongoing sexual abuse, a girl trying to survive and thrive despite being crushed by the weight of an alcoholic and abusive mother, and a girl suffering from PTS. A large number of the young women she has played were working class and most were trying to find there way and maintain their dignity in a classist and sexist world. And though she has made an endless slew of throw away romantic comedies, many of her films also highlighted the stories of marginalized women trying to find not only love but also to love themselves or make their single mothers’ proud. In 2009, she seemed to be trying to get back to the complexity she had once embodied in her career with films like Deadline and Across the Hall that dealt with domestic violence and infidelity.
In her own life, Murphy eschewed Hollywood for family. Though she married a screenwriter, he was neither famous nor unusually attractive; in fact, horror of horrors, by US standards he was overweight. His appearance was under so much scrutiny that people even speculated it was “a green card marriage” despite Brittany’s repeated interviews doting on him. No doubt this intense criticism reinforced the cult of thinness that seemed to surround Murphy. And while she put on a public smile and talked of love and happiness, her mania in interviews and on movie sets raised red flags for those of us used to the tell-tale signs of addiction. (Murphy herself claimed the manic episodes were related to her diabetes.)
When Murphy was fired from her latest film in Puerto Rico this past month, many trades said it was because of “diva-esque sporadic behavior on set.” But I found myself wondering if perhaps it was because the woman who had once made a living playing mentally disturbed young girls who were abused or shoved to the background b/c of the intersections of ableism and sexism had finally broken under the weight of trying to be “normal.”
While there is no concrete evidence that Brittany Murphy used drugs to get thin, several people referenced drug use when she emerged as a dirty blonde emaciated woman from the shadows of her pudgy, brown haired, haunted youth. In 2005, Murphy was summarily dropped from representation by both her agent and her publicist right when she was co-starring in the box office hit Sin City amidst rumors of drug addiction; Murphy denied the rumors on Jay Leno.
Yet, it is common knowledge that many actresses and women in the public eye have been encouraged to lose weight by using meth or coke and several high profile women in Murphy’s age group, from reality tv stars like Nichole Ritchie to former top rated tv show stars like Mischa Barton, have all gone to rehab after following that advice. Murphy’s own mania seemed to reek of addiction at one time or another, and her recent firing and attempts to keep her husband from medical attention when he was thought to be having a heart attack by physicians (she claimed it was asthma), are also recognizable flags.
We won’t know what really happened until the autopsy. What we do know is that an incredibly gifted child actress, who took complex roles depicting women’s issues that are largely ignored by Hollywood mainstream, wasted away before our eyes while the media mocked her. When I show her before and after pictures to my students, I am horrified to see them pick over her bones with comments like “well she might be too thin, but I wonder how she did it?” and “well she needs to get her roots done, but she looks better; she used to be fat.” It seems that talent has very little sway and that an emaciated, sporadic, Murphy in crappy romantic comedies was still better than an average sized Murphy exposing classism, ableism and violence against women. And while we will never know with what demons she wrestled or the extent of her actual physical health issues (like diabetes, flu, etc.), I think we can be clear that the need for thinness that surrounds actresses, and women in general, ultimately cost a 32 year old woman her life and any number of girls there sense of safety in their own bodies.
Say what you will about her, there is a lesson in Brittany Murphy’s short life that I hope we can finally learn.
- Britney Murphy as Tai. Clueless. Paramount, 1995.
- Britney Murphy & Simon Monjack @ airport after “heart attack” incident/TMZ